I was just in on an RNC-hosted blogger conference call with Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) and Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.), both of whom just returned from a trip to Iraq.
It was the second trip for both men. Both were there in 2003--Chocola in August and Barrett a few months later. Flip Pidot asked what was the biggest change they noticed between then and now:
Chocola opened by drawing attention to the bigger role that Iraqi soldiers and police are playing in country.
"General Casey has called 2006 the year of the police...They're making great strides."
Barret said this trip illustrated for him the words the president has been using: "We'll stand down when Iraqi forces stand up."
"We're behind and it's taken a while to get caught up...But we are seeing it, guys...This is the first time that I got excited about seeing it."
Chocola mentioned that U.S. troops are enjoying some of the equipment upgrades they've gotten, particularly a new Hummer. Barret had this to say:
"The difference between the equipment that we had then and now is amazing...The things we are spending our money on make me feel good because theyâ€™re working."
Both men focused on the fact that Iraqis are becoming part of the security of their nation. Those who don't serve in the Army of the police force help by giving tips to local police about terrorists. Chocola mentioned the story of an Iraqi man who brought a donation and a banquet to his local police station to thank them for looking out for him.
Many of those who are mayors and other public figures have started denouncing terrorism more readily, they said. And more of this will happen as Iraqis continue to see themselves as part of this process instead of seeing Iraq as an occupied country.
Barrett, a former Army captain, conceded that the U.S. had read the situation in Iraq incorrectly upon arrival. We thought it would be a "mop-up" job, and that Iraqis would be ready and willing to particpate more quickly than they were. Instead, it has taken time and numerous political progressions to convince Iraqis that they have a stake in the fate of their country.
Chocola attributed the slow progress to the fact that "Iraqis lean toward power." In the days after the fall of Saddam Hussein, they didn't know who would end up in power, so they didn't get behind U.S. troops. Since then, it has been a power struggle between insurgents and U.S. troops. Now that Iraqis see that they and coalition troops together will end up on the winning side of this conflict, they're contributing in amazing numbers, Chocola said.
I asked what reaction they had gotten on the ground to accusations of election fraud in the December elections. There is an internal investigation due out on Thursday, reporting on all the complaints.
Chocola and Barrett both called the investigation and most complaints "politics as usual."
"Some of the complaints that were launched were things like 'someone stole a yard sign out of my yard.'"
"With 7000 candidates, there are gonna be winners and losers, and the losers aren't going to be happy."
"The observers of the elections said that they met international standardsâ€¦and the country will move forward politically."
Joseph Katzman of Winds of Change asked what the story was with reconstruction funding and whether it would have to jump through any political hoops.
Both said making sure the troops have everything they need is a priority and that they don't anticipate funding hitting any roadblocks. Barrett added that the generals they talked to on the ground said they had the supplies they needed and were able to move money around to fix problems with a minimum of red tape. Which made me wonder-- were there any Democrats there to hear that?
Matt Margolis was also on the call, but when he was speaking, I was having trouble typing on the ol' wireless keyboard without making my speakerphone cut out. That is just a technological mystery I don't have the smarts to solve, but the result was that I didn't catch Matt's question-and-answer. Look for his write-up, here.